Story by Elizabeth Granger
Welcome to Whiting, the little company town (incorporated 1895) built around Standard Oil on two square miles. These days it’s big on optimism that’s producing even bigger results. The refinery is still here, now with BP (British Petroleum), and it’s still a major employer, but this city (incorporated 1903) of 5,000 is turning itself into an enviable tourist destination on Lake Michigan.
The seed was planted 25 years ago when Martin Dybel came up with the idea of selling pierogis in a festival-like setting. “We always had an end-of-July fest of some kind,” he says. “With the rise of malls, downtowns like this took a hit; we needed something to re-invent ourselves. The majority of this town is Eastern European. I felt it was time we celebrated who we were and who built this town.”
So, he told fellow Chamber of Commerce members, “We’re gonna’ have a pierogi festival.” It would be named for the popular Polish dumpling typically filled with cheese and potatoes.
They thought he was out of his mind. But they went along with trying out the idea.
“A lady in town had a pierogi store, and she made us 1,800 pierogis that she froze,’ Dybel says. “We rented
a two-basket fryer and the Chamber of Commerce members cooked the pierogis.”
He continues: “People wanted dozens, and we could fry just one dozen at a time. The line was a block long. That’s when we knew we had something.”
Pierogi Fest® has become one of Indiana’s premier festivals. The “wackiest fest in the Midwest” showcases pride in the city’s ethnic heritage with a whole lot of self- deprecating fun. It’s got Mr. Pierogi (who’s even got a fan club); his entourage the 11-member Pieroguettes that include Miss Potato, Miss Cheese, and Miss Sauerkraut; the bus has (grandmothers) who come dressed in housecoats and stockings (most likely falling down) with babushkas (scarves) on their heads. They’re all part of the polka parade, which also includes the zany precision lawnmower drill team. Add to this the pierogi toss, pierogi- eating contest, foods, crafts, bands….
The festival has brought huge crowds to city – numbering more than 300,000 now, making it the third largest festival in the state. But it’s for just one three- day weekend in late July.
Other warm-weather events fill the weeks between Memorial Day and Labor Day, many of them free. And all along 119th Street, the city’s major thoroughfare. “We always do our special events in our business district,” says Joe Stahura, Whiting’s mayor.
This month’s events include Wickedly Whiting on Oct. 12, a Halloween skit roving down the business district with ghosts, goblins and ghouls that gets scarier as the evening goes on, and Cruise Night featuring classic cars on Oct. 16.
But city leaders wanted something that would be indoors and attract visitors during cooler weather. They started investigating possibilities for a tourism bump that was longer-lasting. They stumbled onto former mascot David Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic, who had an online hall of fame. The idea quickly grew to creating a brick-and-mortar presence for it.
Stahura – known to most folks as Mayor Joe – says it was developed solely to bring people to Whiting. A plus is that it’s wacky and comical, making
it a perfect partner for Pierogi Fest®. One look at Reggy, the Hall of Fame’s huge furry mascot with yellow hair that looks like french fries, solidifies that thought. He’s known as “the purple party dude.”
Many of the targeted visitors are from Chicago. “One of our larger suburbs,” Mayor Joe says. “There are 91⁄2 million people right across the state line. When they come and see us, they’ll want to come back.”
The Mascot Hall of Fame opened the day after Christmas last year. It provides an indoor event space which the city hadn’t had. It’s interactive, educational as well as entertaining. There’s a Build-a-Bear – or, more accurately, Build-a-Mascot – shop. There’s even a penalty box where parents can sit and relax.
Executive Director Orestes Hernandez says the Hall is the country’s most unique children’s museum. The exhibits are all mascot-themed and are embedded with STEAM-based K-8 curriculum.
Mascot inductees must have positively affected their communities. They must have built educational and community programs, visited hospitals, raised money for foundations, … and they’ve had to have been mascots for at least 10 years. New inductees will be chosen this month; a public online vote Oct. 20-26 is part of the process.
The Hall of Fame looks out onto Lake Michigan, which hosts another unusual tourist attraction. It’s the WhoaZone water sports park at Whihala Beach, a summertime floating playground in the lake. It’s a one-acre inflatable water challenge course with slides, tunnels, towers, bridges and jumping platforms for children at least 7 and adults who can swim. In other words, a floating ninja course.
How to get there? Swim out. Life jackets are required.
Tourism, however, is just part of the story of Whiting Reinvented. There’s a healthy mix of old and new throughout the town. Former residents are returning and brand-new residents are opting to join the citizenry. New businesses are located among those that have been here for a while. New eateries are close to long-time favorites. New housing nestles next to spruced-up homes that have been here for decades.
This broader revitalization was encouraged by fresh thinking and some gutsy moves. “We knew the life of Whiting was the business district,” Mayor Joe says. “We invested significant dollars into changing and modifying the streetscape. We created a facade program. We purchased properties nobody wanted and we fixed the façades, stabilized the buildings, and sold them for $1 if new owners would agree to rehab the buildings. And we gave grants to businesses.”
In 2004 there were 49 vacancies out of 110 commercial properties in the downtown area; today there are four. Among the new businesses are Beggars Pizza, Mind Benders Puzzles & Games, Dos Sabores restaurant, and Comfort Roast Coffee House & Café.
Once the business district was on its feet, the plan was expanded to other areas. The city purchased old homes to be rehabilitated or razed and replaced with new.
Joel Bender of Mind Benders says Whiting is “just a nice walkable town. There’s always something going on. The city does great events. The Chamber does great events. The merchants do great events. There are plenty of things to do.”